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The book that serves as a reminder of Britain’s fall as a maritime power

A lighthouse keeper at Strathy Point, on the north coast of Scotland, poses in front of the site's vast foghorn, in 1960 - Credit: Mirrorpix via Getty Images

The Foghorn’s Lament focuses on an unusual subject that inspires a spellbinding book

One of my earliest memories is of foghorns. It’s of my sister and I being wrapped in warm clothing and lifted into wellington boots, sleep-dozy because it’s nearly midnight, and taken by our parents out of the front door of our house in south east London and lined up on the step.

I remember light drizzle hitting my cheeks and my mother leaning down and whispering to us to be quiet and just listen. She has her hands on my shoulders, my dad rests his on my sister’s shoulders, the four of us motionless as if posing for a family photograph.

There’s the faint pitter of tiny droplets on dead leaves, then it starts. A parping, a lowing, the odd throaty blatch, a distant dissonance of reeds and diaphones: it’s New Year’s Eve and the ships on the River Thames, four miles from where we stand, are marking the start of the year by sounding their foghorns.

We did this every year, for my mother’s sake more than anything. She came from a family of dockers in east London and is a child of the river, born with docks a few hundred yards to the north and the river the same distance to the south. This was her ritual, an annual calibration of herself, a key part of her identity. When she married my father and they moved to a distant suburb far from the Thames, every New Year’s Eve just before midnight my grandmother would walk to a telephone box, call my mother and hold the receiver out of the door so she could hear the horns.

Lurking somewhere in a remote tributary of the internet is a recording, almost 40 years old, of a remarkable European radio event. On May 22, 1982, the Dutch broadcaster VPRO staged a three-hour Misthoornconcert, a live link-up of foghorns along the coasts of France, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. Microphones were placed at nine foghorns from Calais to Kornwerderzand, each dialled in to the studio at Hilversum, there were brief descriptions of their locations and then the concert began, nine horns of differing pitches and different lengths of time between their fanfares, some combining to produce clean intervals and cadences, others a rasping dissonance.

It’s an odd listening experience at first but it’s not long before it becomes beautiful, highly evocative of a dark night on the North Sea, smoky fog drifting across black water. It’s a song of safety, a wordless ode to the sea and the protection of those on it shrouded sightless by the clustering of weightless water droplets so tiny it would take seven billion of them to fill a teaspoon with water.

There was something wonderfully European about that night, a perfect illustration of how borders are irrelevant when there’s a common good, a marking of the altruism of safety. I returned to that recording for years. Before and after the Brexit vote it provided a reassuring reminder of a European unity my country would decide it could do without.

Aside from my Europhilia, however, the Misthoornconcert took me back to that New Year ritual when as everyone else cheered and sang we fell silent to allow my mother to be drawn back for a few moments to the river whence she came, another year distant.

Both experiences made foghorns a comforting phenomenon for me, a quirky enthusiasm in which I had assumed I was alone: relentless battering rams of sound howling into the void aren’t really the kind of material to invoke warm feelings of nostalgia. Thankfully, the journalist and Radio 3 Late Junction presenter Jennifer Lucy Allan has written a book that proves it’s not just me after all.

If my feelings for foghorns are anchored firmly in affection, Allan’s have plunged headlong into obsession. Not only does she have a PhD in foghorns, she’s travelled far and wide in the hope – not even certainty – of hearing them.

The Foghorn’s Lament is a melancholy title for what is ultimately a joyous book, a celebration of a recondite piece of coastal apparatus and a charting of how the foghorn hasn’t just sent its bovine honk out to sea but turned around and permeated inland culture too, from literature (although not to a massive extent) and to music (to an absolutely enormous extent; she cites a post on a drum and bass messageboard complaining of “too many foghorns” in the genre).

There’s always a danger with a book on a narrow topic like this that it could go one of two ways: an earnestly technical treatise packed with diagrams that’s drier than the Gobi or a self-indulgent voyage into circumlocution, short on facts and long on navel-gazing. It’s to Allan’s credit that she never veers close to either.

She charts the root of her obsession to attending a performance of the Foghorn Requiem at Souter Point in South Shields during the summer of 2013, a musical marking of the decommissioning of the foghorn with a specially composed piece for brass band accompanied by ships off the coast and the foghorn itself. As the last note the horn will ever sound dies away Allan is surprised at how profoundly affected she is by the sonic elegy.

She writes brilliantly-researched forays into the history of the foghorn rendered with a touch light enough that it never drags. She develops a deep admiration for John Tyndall, a 19th century engineer who today would have been a scion of popular science with a six-figure Twitter following. Among his many claims to fame Tyndall undertook extensive research into which instruments made the most effective foghorns, conducting experiments off the South Foreland lighthouse with a range of ordnance, bells and steam powered horns that must have been extraordinary to hear.

If she makes this kind of material, most of it squirreled away in dusty archives, accessible, it’s on the trail of the foghorns themselves that Allan is at her best. Unlike many writers focussed on an outwardly obscure subject she is blessed with self-awareness: when she elicits strange looks from fellow bus passengers, for example, she changes her mobile ringtone from the sound of a foghorn. When she spends a month at Sumburgh Head lighthouse in Shetland and the part-time keeper fires up the foghorn for her, it draws a small crowd and she finds herself too embarrassed to admit that she’s only there thanks to an obsession with foghorns.

Writing books about music can be challenging because the reader can’t hear the songs or pieces. That challenge is ever greater when the subject is a sound as basic – and ostensibly unmusical – as a foghorn. Allan is terrific in bringing to life her first-hand experiences of the horns she visits. At Sumburgh she writes, “I don’t hear it only with my ears. I hear it with my whole body – stomach, skin, bone and skull all rattle when the foghorn sounds. The seven full seconds of its sounding feels like much longer, my guts buzz and ears hum – a flood of terrific sound ripples outwards… I feel the vibrational bliss and rush of physical sound”. To make an experience that for many people is about as appealing as being struck in the small of the back by a van sound that exhilarating is a tribute to both her passion and her writing.

Treating the sound of the foghorn as musical also helps. The Misthoornconcert has always been a piece of music for me, and here she meets and cites composers and musicians who have incorporated the sound into their work. It’s a dimension that changes immediately the perception of the foghorn as a racket to be tolerated rather than a sound to be embraced.

It could be a tough sell, but it works: when she collects historical complaint letters to newspapers about the sound of foghorns and compares their writers to those who moaned when Dylan went electric or Scott Walker crossed over to the avant-garde, it’s an argument that stays firmly the right side of eccentricity.

For all it’s a joyful celebration of the foghorn as innovation, altruism and a unique sonic experience, there is a melancholy tinge to The Foghorn’s Lament. Nearly all the foghorns around Britain were decommissioned in 1995, those around Ireland in 2011.

But the melancholy goes deeper than a whimsical nostalgia for silenced horns. Noting Britain’s reduction as a maritime power she notes how the nation “has become forgetful about its status as a small island. Still drunk on its own 19th century excesses, the post-European hangover is now waiting in the wings”.

Of the Foghorn Requiem she attended in 2013, she writes of realising the piece “was not about the death of a foghorn as much as the death of industry. The foghorn was associated with that working life, that landscape, that industry. When it was switched off it became an industrial monument to a dead sound. It is at once the sound of an industry and its death knell, a link between present day absence and past prowess”.

It would have been easy to make The Foghorn’s Lament one long wistful sigh for what we’ve lost, but the book is a joy that ranges far beyond these shores, from a pelagic trawler in the North Sea to San Francisco, and Allan only stops herself flying to Tasmania just to see a foghorn when she realises the carbon footprint of the trip would punch a personal five-toed hole through the ozone layer.

As with most successful books on niche topics this is about far more than foghorns. It’s the context that makes it, just as the context of those ships’ horns on the Thames serenading a New Year made it for my mother. Even from miles away the sound was resonating in her bones prompting a response almost as physical as it was emotional, looking back but also forward.

It resonates with me too. When I lived on the northern shore of Dublin Bay and fogs would roll in from the Irish Sea, the sort that made your skin sticky, I would lie awake and listen to the fog signals from Dún Laoghaire harbour and even – although I was possibly fantasising about this one – the distant Kish Bank horn, rammed into the dangerous shifting sands seven miles out.

At the end of my first New Year’s Eve there, sitting out at the far end of the North Bull Wall that punches into the waters of Dublin Bay, looking up at the stars of a clear, fog-free night, at midnight I heard the distant sound of first one, then two, then three foghorns. The response it provoked was unexpectedly emotional, a family tradition revived unexpectedly far from the Thames and no telephone box required.

The Foghorn’s Lament by Jennifer Lucy Allan is published by White Rabbit, price £16.99

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